- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

GAZA, March 8 (UPI) — The militant Islamic group Hamas vowed Saturday to target Israeli political leaders after one of the group's founders and senior leaders and three other militants were killed in an Israeli helicopter attack.

"The Israelis will pay a heavy price for what they are doing," Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Ranteesi told United Press International. He added that "the reaction of his movement would be very quick and very painful to Israel."

Meanwhile, witnesses said the attack took place early Saturday when helicopters fired five missiles that targeted a local Palestinian car as it drove along one of Gaza City's main streets. The four Hamas members, including prominent leader Ibrahim Al Maqadma, were killed instantly.

Four others were wounded, said chief of public security in Gaza City, Brig. Saeb El Aajez.

The witnesses said Gaza residents all around the area saw the two Apache helicopters and heard the five explosions. As soon as the helicopters left the area, dozens of residents rushed to the scene as well as ambulances.

Al-Maqadma, a 48-year-old physician, was nominated as a deputy to Sheikh Salah Shehada, leader and founder of the Izel Dein Al Qassam Brigades. He was high on an Israeli wanted list and also had been arrested by the Palestinian Authority police several times before the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, broke out.

Medical sources at Shiffa Hospital said that it was hard to recognize the bodies as they arrived in pieces at the hospital, carried by residents and ambulances.

Ranteesi told UPI that he and other Hamas leaders have urged the armed wing of his movement to target Israeli political leaders in retaliation to targeting Al Maqadma.

He said that Hamas would strike everywhere in Israel and in the Palestinian territories against Israeli civilians, Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers.

The strike follows a bus attack in Haifa, Israel, on Wednesday by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Fifteen people were killed instantly in the explosion, which ripped off the roof of the bus and left only a smoldering metal skeleton.

The death toll from Wednesday's suicide bombing rose to 16 Saturday when Anatoly Birikov, 20, from Haifa died. Israel Radio reported that as of late Saturday, 14 people remained hospitalized, with three of the wounded listed in serious condition.

Meanwhile, retaliation operations by Israeli forces have left dead nearly two-dozen Palestinians, most of them militants shot during gunfire exchanges. Four militants of the Hamas armed wing, Izel Dein Al Qassam, launched two separate attacks Friday against Jewish settlements hear Hebron in the West Bank. All died, but two first killed an Israeli husband and wife in the highly guarded settlement town named Kiryat Arba.

The Israel Defense Force said Saturday it had also arrested what it called "15 terrorists" in the West Bank.

Against the backdrop of the escalating conflict, the Palestinian Central Council met Saturday to discuss a new state constitution, to vote for the nomination of the new office of prime minister and other Palestinian political matters. Leader Yasser Arafat has put forward the Palestinian architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, his deputy Mahmoud Abbas, as his candidate for prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

(Joshua Brilliant contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel)

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